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Animal Shelters Run as Corporations

Excerpt from Little Boy Blue by Kim Kavin for  Pet News and Views

I had heard again and again about Northeast Animal Shelter in Salem, Massachusetts, a facility that rescuers all across the South feel is the gold-standard way station for dogs like Blue who are in transit to permanent homes. And it came to exist, I learned in a telephone call, because a woman named Cindi Shapiro happened to read The Wall Street Journal on Thursday, March 6, 1970.

The book is available as an e-reader too.

Shapiro was just twenty-five years old, a recent graduate of Harvard Business School. She loved animals, so her eyes gravitated naturally toward one particular front-page headline. “With Right Tactics, It’s Easy to Market A Three-Legged Cat: Little Animal Shelter Succeeds By Imitating Big Business.”

The article, by staff reporter William Mathewson, told the story of Alexander Lewyt (pronounced LOO-it). At the time, the resident ofLong Island,New York, was sixty-six years old and best known for having invented the Lewyt vacuum cleaner. It was sold door-to-door following World War II with a promise to homemakers that it would not interfere with the reception on their big-box radios or black-and-white televisions.

The Journal article explained how Lewyt became involved with North Shore Animal League on Long Island in 1969, when his wife talked him into donating $100. Lewyt got curious about how his money would be spent, so he paid a visit to the twenty-five-year-old shelter. It was open only two hours a day on five days of the week, had one full-time employee, and barely had enough cash flow to keep the lights on. “They were also acting as the local dogcatcher,” Lewyt told the Journal, “and they were losing money on every dog they’d catch.”

Lewyt thought that was a pretty dumb way to run an operation, so he taught the shelter’s directors about direct-mail campaigns. Working with Publishers Clearing House, which was near the shelter on Long Island, Lewyt produced a letter featuring a photograph of a puppy and a kitten. The letter asked its 28,000 recipients, “Would you give a dollar—just $1—TO SAVE THEIR LIVES?” Lewyt got a celebrity endorser to donate his signature, too. It was singer Perry Como.

That mailing brought in $11,000, which is the equivalent of about $67,000 today. Within the next five years, the shelter’s staff grew from one to twenty-five employees, its hours of operation increased to every day of the year, and its advertising budget alone was earmarked at $50,000 (about $125,000 in current dollars). That’s why The Wall Street Journal had taken notice. Lewyt was running the shelter as if it were a corporation—work he would continue until his death in 1988. “We have the same concept as bringing any product to the public,” Lewyt told the Journal in 1975. “We have our receivables, our inventories. And if a product doesn’t move, we have a promotion. . . . Most animal shelters are run by well-intentioned people who don’t know anything about fund-raising or running the place like a business. The only reason they don’t go broke is that a little old lady dies every year and leaves them something.”

That was all that Cindi Shapiro needed to read.

“This article was an epiphany for me,” she recalls. “It put together everything that I wanted to do with everything I’d been trained to do.”

Shapiro found Lewyt’s number in a thick printed phone book, called him unannounced, and said she wanted to do what he was doing nearManhattan, only up inMassachusetts. He spent the next forty-five minutes berating her from his end of the phone line—the way a father might snap at a daughter who says she wants to turn down a corporate job offer and instead become a painter of abstract expressionist art. Lewyt told Shapiro that rescuing animals was a lifelong commitment, and that the work could be absolutely heartbreaking. He tried to scare off the fresh-faced college graduate by insisting there wasn’t a darn nickel of money to be made.

“When he was done, maybe just because I was still on the line after all that, he invited me toLong Islandto see what he was doing,” Shapiro told me. “At the end of the weekend, he told me he’d always wanted to know whether his concept could be duplicated, and that I was the first person he’d met who had a shot at succeeding. He told me, ‘I’m going to give you the ten trials of Hercules, make you do things like a financial projection and a marketing study, to see if you can do it.’”

Not long after Shapiro completed Lewyt’s feats of mental strength, he sent her a check for $5,000. She rented the basement of a veterinarian’s office with room for just ten cages. That was in 1976, a full thirty-five years before I stepped foot into the current incarnation of Northeast Animal Shelter in Salem, Massachusetts. As I pulled into the parking lot, I saw not a single hint of the organization’s humble roots.

Editor’s Note: I reviewed Kim’s book earlier this month. I wanted to share this excerpt with you because of its importance. Ever since I heard Mike Arms, president of Helen Woodward Animal Center (HWAC), talk about the importance of running animal centers as a business, something inside clicked. It made perfect sense, as we can see and learn from models like Northeast Animal Shelter and HWAC.  HWAC has a wonderful program that focuses on this very topic. Click here for more information.

Everyone who loves animals should read Little Boy Blue.  To  order a copy of the book, click here.


22 comments to Animal Shelters Run as Corporations

  • […] News and Views just uploaded a new excerpt, never before seen online, from “Little Boy […]

  • Wanda

    Smart advice Kim. Sharing!

  • Jodie

    I don’t understand how shelters could give away pets. They spend so much money caring for the pets in their care. It just makes sense that they charge fair market prices so they can stay in business.

  • Sheila

    Adopting from a shelter or rescue is so much cheaper than buying from a breeder. If you go to a good rescue or shelter, you know what you are getting. That is not always the case with a breeder. Some breeders operate as puppy mills. And stores are out of the question.

  • Carey

    Good ideas, and this makes absolute sense. We only get our pets from reputable shelters or rescues.

  • Debra

    I wish all shelters would operate this way. I will definitely look for this book.

  • Alice

    So many shelters that I have volunteered at don’t respect their volunteers, and sometimes managements just doesn’t know how to welcome customers.

  • Barry

    I checked out HWAC’ ACES program that you have mentioned before. I wish every animal shelter worker would take their FREE workshop.

  • Rena

    Our dogs are adopted, and I read your blog often and see you promote adoption. This is a valuable post.

  • Henry

    For the sake of all the shelter cats and dogs, we need to have our shelters and rescues follow this creed.

  • Belle

    Good post, and I will check out “Little Boy Blue.”

  • Irene

    Love your blog Michele! This is important. Thank you for sharing it. I will share too.

  • Caitlin

    Blue is one lucky dog. I read your other post. And this does make a lot of sense.

  • Linda

    I also think shelters and rescues should continue their vetting processes. All of my pets are free. I found them on the streets. It is very easy to find free cats. However, I do support my local shelter, and think they should charge. They have to charge. It is the only way to stay in business. They also need smart marketing plans.

  • Sue

    Great excerpt. $150 for a cat or even up to $300 for a dog is cheap compared to the ridiculous rates that breeders and stores charge. Plus, you never know what you are getting when you buy from a store. Most stores are puppy mills, and should be closed down. There are a few reputable breeders, but why support them when there are so many lovable cats and dogs in need of good homes at our local shelters and rescues.

  • Jane

    This is a smart post. I know someone who benefited from the ACES program that you have mentioned here and in the past. Thanks!

  • Karen

    I am going to order the book, and share it with my local shelter.

  • Nina

    Our local shelter would benefit by reading this book.

  • Olivia

    Good insight, and I know the ACES program at HWAC. So many people and pets would benefit.

  • I am going to pick up a copy of this book. Thanks for calling it to my attention, Michele!

  • Rescue groups would be well-advised to follow a business model as well. I consult for a small rescue group in New Hampshire, which offers a free behavioral and training consultation to anyone who adopts one of their dogs. They are motivated, organized and committed to finding appropriate homes for pet dogs. They understand that in order to do the kind of work they want to do, making good placements and being their for their adopters and dogs, they have to run the organization like a business. I am proud to be associated with them, and was thrilled to move away from being discouraged with ‘rescue’.

  • Jessica Sala

    We only adopt from the shelter! Heard about this book through another blog and ordered it the other day! Hope it’s here in time to take on my beach vacation!